SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Prosecutors often hire victim advocates to help comfort victims
Sangamon county’s top victim advocate is so good, he doesn’t have to say a word to do his job.
Gibson is a certified therapy dog. He was hired back in 2017, and since then, he’s made a huge impact.
“Animals have such a, such a wonderful ability to relate to humans to, and they have an innate sense with people and especially if they might need just a little extra help,” Victim Coordinator for Sangamon County Diane Bell said.
Dogs like Gibson were not legally allowed in courtrooms until 2015. A law championed by Senator Scott Bennett made the change. The dogs would make victims, especially children, more comfortable while they testified.
Bennett was inspired by his time as an assistant state’s attorney. Early on in his stint, he became the go to attorney for cases involving child victims.
“Scott was definitely someone who was able to make people feel comfortable with him,” Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz said. “And that helped him, get them through the process, the very traumatic process of testifying.”
It also changed the statewide outlook on the use of therapy dogs. They became much more common after his law passed.
“We are now to a point, you know, seven and a half years later, there are 41 states with 295 dogs across the country,” U.S. Attorney’s office victim coordinator Tami Richmond said.
Gibson’s handlers say he has helped facilitate major breakthroughs for so many victims.
“It just blows your mind, just to see the difference of a victim who comes one day, and four times later, after getting used to visiting with this dog,” Richmond said. “They’re actually more anxious to come.”
It’s not just victims who benefit. Caseworkers, attorneys and law enforcement often go visit Gibson when they are working on a particularly tough case.
“You see Illinois was kind of on the cutting edge of it,” Richmond said. “And it is thanks to people like that.”
The victim advocates in Sangamon County say Bennett’s 2015 bill legitimized the idea of therapy dogs for many counties.
“He had the foresight to recognize and see the need for this program, based on his own experience,” Bell said. “It’s the same experiences that we have seen.”
In the seven years since this law passed, there are 14 counties across Illinois who use dogs to help victims adjust and heal from their trauma.